EGU General Assembly 2020
© Author(s) 2020. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Climate change induced socio-economic tipping points

Kees van Ginkel1,2, Wouter Botzen2,3,4, Marjolijn Haasnoot1,5, Gabriel Bachner6, Karl Steininger6, Jochen Hinkel7,8, Paul Watkiss9, Esther Boere10, Ad Jeuken1, Elisa Sainz de Murieta11,12, and Francesco Bosello13,14
Kees van Ginkel et al.
  • 1Deltares, Delft, The Netherlands (
  • 2Institute for Environmental Studies, VU University, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
  • 3Utrecht University School of Economics, Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands
  • 4Risk Management and Decision Processes Centre, The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, USA
  • 5Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands
  • 6University of Graz, Graz, Austria
  • 7Global Climate Forum, Berlin, Germany
  • 8Humboldt-University, Berlin, Germany
  • 9Paul Watkiss Associates, Oxford, United Kingdom
  • 10Ecosystem Services and Management program, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Laxenburg, Austria
  • 11Basque Centre for Climate Change, Leioa, Basque Country, Spain
  • 12Grantham Research Institute, London, United Kingdom
  • 13Dipartimento di Scienze e Politiche Ambientali Università degli Studi di Milano, Milan, Italy
  • 14RFF-CMCC European Institute on Economics and the Environment (EIEE), Milan, Italy

The concept of tipping points has received much attention in research on climate change. In the biophysical realm, climate tipping points describe critical thresholds at which large-scale elements of the Earth switch to a qualitatively different state; and ecological tipping points describe thresholds separating distinct dynamic regimes of ecosystems. The tipping point metaphor is also used to indicate transformative change in adaptation and mitigation strategies. However, there remains an underexplored field: climate change induced socio-economic tipping points (SETPs). We define an SETP as: a climate change induced, abrupt change of a socio-economic system, into a new, fundamentally different state. We make a distinction between SETPs in terms of transformational response to climate change and SETPs in terms of socio-economic impacts.

SETPs are points where a gradual change in climatic conditions causes an abrupt, fundamental reconfiguration of the socio-economic system. Through a stakeholder consultation, we identified 22 candidate SETP examples with policy relevance for Europe. Three of these were investigated in more detail, with special attention for their tipping point characteristics (stable states at both sides of a critical threshold, abrupt transition between those states, and the mechanism explaining the non-linear and abrupt behaviour).

The first example is the collapse of winter sports tourism in low-altitude ski resorts. In the face of climate change, this may occur abrupt, cause a fundamental reconfiguration of the local and regional economy, and is very hard to reverse. In some cases, it could be possible to achieve a fundamental shift towards summer tourism.

The second example is the farmland abandonment in Southern Europe. Large parts of Spain have already seen widespread farmland abandonment and associated migration. Increasing heat and drought may worsen the conditions, with considerable social, and to a lesser extent, economic consequences. On the local scale, this manifests itself as a clear SETP: a lively agricultural area suddenly tips to the ‘Spanish Lapland’: deserted farms, villages with ageing population, little economic activity and underdeveloped infrastructure and facilities.

The third example is sea-level rise induced reconfiguration of coastal zones. In the face of accelerating sea level rise (SLR), threatened communities may retreat from vulnerable coastal zones. This may be caused by migration (voluntary human mobility), displacement (involuntary movement following a disaster) or relocation (retreat managed by the government). The SETP of retreat from a certain area is usually triggered by a flood event. However, also the adaptation to increasing flood risk may be so transformative, that it can be considered a structural configuration of the system. This is currently seen in The Netherlands, where studies on extreme SLR have triggered a debate in which very transformative strategies are proposed, such as: constructing a dike in front of the entire coast, retreat from areas with economic stagnation and population decline, or elevating all new buildings above sea level.

A key insight is that the rate of climate change may exceed the capacity of society to adapt in the traditional way, triggering a shift towards fundamentally different policies and a reconfiguration of the socio-economic system.

How to cite: van Ginkel, K., Botzen, W., Haasnoot, M., Bachner, G., Steininger, K., Hinkel, J., Watkiss, P., Boere, E., Jeuken, A., Sainz de Murieta, E., and Bosello, F.: Climate change induced socio-economic tipping points , EGU General Assembly 2020, Online, 4–8 May 2020, EGU2020-21493,, 2020